BY: Stephanie Kim
(Originally published in The News-Gazette, July 12, 2015)
Darrell Price was especially tired one night after a long day at work, and his wife, Peggy, noticed. She knew it was hard for him to juggle two jobs, one as a DeWitt County assistant state’s attorney and the other caring for her. Many a husband would leave his wife, she remembers thinking that night, because of that burden.
“Do you hate me because this happened?” she recalls asking him.
“No,” he quickly responded.
“How? Isn’t this a tortuous life for you? I mean, wouldn’t you rather just leave?”
“Well, if I didn’t love you, I probably would.”
Despite her fears, Peggy knows Darrell’s love is complete. Most days, she sees beyond her suffering. Yet today has been one of those days when she feels sorry for the way their lives turned out. Since she fell down the steps in front of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on the University of Illinois campus in 2005, her body has never been the same. She has had three knee replacements and two spinal surgeries, which have left her body full of metal and rods. After she fell again in their Urbana home in 2009, doctors discovered a connective-tissue disorder that now confines her to a wheelchair.
If she falls again, her legs could need to be amputated. Yet, after 42 years of marriage, Peggy knows Darrell will never abandon her.
“This is all part of ‘sickness and health,'” he says. “You say those words when you get married, but you don’t mean them. But it really comes home to you when things like this happen. The hard part isn’t taking care of her and making sure she can get in the chair.
“It’s seeing her in pain.”
It was Sept. 30, 1972, in front of God and everyone else, when Darrell and Peggy vowed to spend the rest of their lives together. On that beautiful morning, the sun was bright and the sky pure blue. Peggy remembers getting out of bed excitedly, without any doubts. Darrell remembers getting a little nervous standing at the altar alone, until Peggy entered the church.
“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health …”
How could 20-year-olds know the meaning of those words?
After dinner tonight, Darrell puts the plates in the kitchen sink and makes his way into the living room with slow, exhausted steps. Peggy waits for him to sit down before moving so that she doesn’t run over his toes again. He slumps into the couch, and she positions herself a few feet away. He can barely keep his eyes open. Still, Darrell manages to smile the same smile he did in his younger years. Except now he doesn’t have long sideburns or a mustache, and his hair isn’t jet black and styled in the way that Peggy used to like so much. Instead, after 63 years, it has become tame and silver-white. Peggy, at the same age, has also seen her hair turn white, but it still parts naturally in the middle as it did when she had golden-brown curls. She turns off her wheelchair, clasps her hands on her lap and stares at Darrell with her blue-green eyes.
This is their favorite part of the day. They enjoy each other’s company in comfortable silence, or talk back and forth about their grandkids’ shenanigans, or inspiration Peggy has found watching the Catholic TV Network. Or goofy stuff: What if zombies were to take over the planet like they do in the sci-fi movies Darrell enjoys? If this were the case, they agree, Darrell would have to use his rifle to keep them alive. Or they talk about who they’re excited to watch on their favorite TV show, “Dancing with the Stars.” Darrell’s favorite is Rumer Willis.
“She completely blew the judges away,” he says.
Or Darrell talks about how excited he is to retire — 688 days from now — and again brings up his request for their 50th anniversary: a toga party like in his favorite comedy, “Animal House,” after which Darrell chants, “Toga! Toga! Toga!” — lines from the classic 1978 baby-boomer film — and pounds his thighs with clenched fists. Peggy just rolls her eyes and laughs. Sometimes, in the course of their daily lives, Darrell will let out an exasperated sigh, especially when things go wrong with Peggy’s wheelchair — the time she almost tipped over on the sidewalk or today, when her wheelchair got stuck on a rug at the local food pantry.
“Darrell, I call those adventures, and we get through them just fine.”
“Well, yeah, you did just fine today.”
Darrell still thinks her adventures are better termed “catastrophes.” But then, for as long as they’ve known each other, they’ve been opposites in their outlooks on life. Darrell and Peggy were born and raised in rural Tuscola, where “everybody knew everybody else,” he says. They met in second grade when Peggy was famous for her banana curls and Darrell got his first pair of dark horn-rimmed glasses. In high school, Peggy was voted class president and was friends with everyone. Even the toughest of boys would watch their language around her. Darrell was what he calls the “quintessential nerd” with glasses, braces and a love of books. He never thought any girl would want to date him — until Peggy arranged the infamous blind date.
“It wasn’t really blind,” Peggy says, laughing. “I knew who I was getting.”
It wasn’t really blind for Darrell, either. He had always had a secret crush on the perky, pretty Peggy but would never have asked her out because he was “painfully shy.”
A year later, Darrell was at the jewelry store buying a $150 engagement ring. He proposed on Valentine’s Day in 1972: “Isn’t that when you’re supposed to get engaged?” he asks. Nine months later, they married — with dreams of having a big Catholic family with five kids, and hopes that Darrell would become a big-time lawyer and Peggy a stay-at-home mom.
At the time of their marriage, Peggy had already quit Parkland College to work full-time to help pay for Darrell’s tuition at the University of Illinois and his upcoming law-school loans. After six years, they learned they were infertile. It took a couple years to adopt their son Nick in 1980 and another seven years after that to adopt Mary. Darrell eventually started his own law firm in Tuscola but went bankrupt. He worked as a prosecutor in several counties and joined the DeWitt office in 2009. That same year, Peggy had to quit her library job because she couldn’t lift things any more. Nothing turned out as they had envisioned.
“If you want to make God laugh,” Peggy says, “tell Him your plans.”
The clock chimes at 8:45, fifteen minutes before Peggy’s usual bedtime.
Darrell turns off the TV and says, “Let’s put you to bed then.”
“Okay, I’m ready,” she says, smiling.
Peggy leads the way to the bathroom, where Darrell helps her wash up and get dressed in her white long-sleeve thermal shirt and light gray pants. Then she heads into the bedroom and parks her chair beside the bed. She holds onto the bed railing her brother installed for better support, stretches her S-shaped back and rolls her neck. All the work today has exhausted her — watering the plants, putting the dishes on the drying rack, safety-pinning Darrell’s laundered sweatpants onto clothes hangers. Her rotator cuffs are so damaged that anything more than a pound is heavy lifting. Still gripping the railing, she carefully climbs into bed and lies on her back. Darrell pulls on her gray, fuzzy socks and refills the water tank for her Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine that makes sure she’s getting enough oxygen in her sleep.
“Did you lay out your pills for tomorrow, Darrell?”
“What about your underwear and towel?”
“Oh, I actually forgot to.”
“What about your pills, dear?”
“Yes, dear, I think that’s everything.”
With that, Darrell climbs into bed. His Civil War book, an empty Kleenex box and a container of Lifesavers and scissors are already on his bed. He grabs seven or eight Lifesavers from the box, cuts off their wrappers, deposits them into the Kleenex box, and carefully places the Lifesavers one-by-one in rows next to him on the bed. Every so often, as he reads, he pops one in his mouth. Once they are gone, he will close his book and turn on the fan so Peggy can feel the light breeze she prefers. When he turns out the light, Peggy is often praying quietly.
Darrell always says his own kind of prayer: “Today’s done, can’t do anything about it. Tomorrow’s not here yet.”
Tomorrow, what will it bring? Will they have enough money to pay the bills? What if he is stricken with a terrible illness? Will she get Parkinson’s disease like her dad or lose her leg muscles like her mom? What if Darrell’s care isn’t enough anymore? So much to fear.
But as they fall asleep one more night in the same bed, Darrell always believes this: “It’s enough to know that we had a day together, no matter whether it was good or bad.”